Here I want to talk about great big novels that have become working models for what I'm trying to write. Trying to write is the key phrase.
I want to mention four of the longer works I read in the last three or four years: Shantaram, Dhalgren, Little, Big, and The Royal Family, novels that respectively evoke the underworld and slums of India, a dystopic Midwestern-Berserk America, a supernatural New England and a gritty, crime-ridden San Francisco.
Three of them are by American authors and are deliberately, vividly, and strangely about America, or what remains of that myth in our collective imagination. Shantaram is by an Australian and is about India but is really a universal tale of personal redemption, at least by my standards.
(Katy said I'm a graphomaniac, which might explain the long-winded flavor of these blog rants.
It might also explain my love for big novels.)
Big novels are like big cities and many of the big novels I've read in the last couple years, or at least the ones that have influenced me the most are books where imagined spaces become major characters in themselves.
These four books are perfect examples of this kind of textual world-making:
In Dhalgren, the city-scape that you'll never forget is Bellona, a perpetually fogged-over, rubble-strewn, bombed-out, shape-shifting city where some unnamed calamity has occurred and people live there like squatters and criminals.
In Little, Big, the eccentric, Edwardian estate of Edgewood, with all its complicated facades, evocative gardens, unquantifiable square feet and demonic edges, is the chimerical gateway to the Fairy World, or so it would seem.
In Shantaram, India is made into the most fascinating, terrifying and seductive character ever. A quick read too, its that gripping.
The Royal Family is a sex-and-drug noir set in San Francisco's Tenderloin with some asides in the most disturbing Las Vegas circus you can possibly imagine.
ALL of these fictional environments are tantalizingly real, even if they are all also extremely strange.
I read these four in the last few years, living in San Francisco and Oakland, right when I felt like I figured out what I really wanted to write about and had developed stronger editorial discipline as well as a sense of bravery in exploring things that were dark and difficult. Not that knowing makes you any more productive. (Not that heartbreak makes you any wiser the next time either.) Much of my desktop, both hard-wood and computer, is littered with unfinished projects.
I am somewhat certain that I'm on the right creative track. I feel at least perpetually inspired. And much of this is due to the influence of these four novels, three of which: Delany's Dhalgren, Crowley's Little, Big and Vollmann's The Royal Family I would love to write some critical study about. Besides the fact that two of them detail with some pretty unsavory aspects of urban life, they all read like equally enchanting experiments in a kind of American magical realism. Although fantasy, sci-fi, pulp, erotica, journalism, cut-up, adventure, fairy-tale, magic, and picaresque all play a part too.
These books all gave me the same sensations: the feeling of walking around inside a book physically, of basking in the mystique of a book's geography, spying the scenery, feeling the uncertainty induced by dark alleyways and parking lots, acting like a voyeur on a street full of dilapidated tenements where desperate people engage in desperate, unusual and monomaniacal acts. Reading can be as fun as voyeurism, eavesdropping or espionage. And the Big Novel is, in some ways, the ultimate act of writerly exhibitionism, so there you go, it invites you right in.
I savor the long-term sense of immersion that the Big Novel causes. Yes, it's escapism. Yes, it's an abdication of life. But so are most things in life that gives us pleasure. Recently, I experienced this absorption in Bolano's nearly thousand-page 2666. That particular immersion took me to some very dark places--but places I needed to understand. A few years back, I experienced a sort of immersion, but more like a distraction--and for the life of me, I can barely remember the book except for a few cartoonish sex scenes and countless scientific words I didn't know---in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. The best character in that book is a Russian guy but I forget his name. Maybe, after I take some more physics, rocket science and history refresher classes, I'll give the book another read and feel more rewarded.
One of the hardest obstacles facing me now, as I write fiction, is the ability to fashion fully-fleshed environments or vivid fields of action in my narrative. To create a space the reader can step into and believe in. THAT I can believe in. For me, settings become major movers and shakers, antagonists and catalysts. Mood is key. In my slowly-congealing collection of short stories, some of which are loosely interconnected via recurring characters and places, I rotate between various locales, mostly in California so far, and many involving certain buildings and institutions that are critical to character interaction and conflict. For example, in one tale that is set in a reimagined Santa Cruz meets Venice Beach, a place I call Naagula, the narrator, a junior monk lives at a monastic abbey that is separated in space by a dark, treacherous Chasm from an all female science and technology school. Antics ensue. Well kind of.
Often my fictional locales are more or less real places, like Oakland or San Francisco, Buenos Aires or Rome, small town Colorado or some steamy metropolis on the East Coast. Other times I blatantly re-imagine a place that already exists but completely shake it up like a kaleidoscope so many of its integral details are warped or modified or made impossible and weird. I used to love Legos and Sim City and Legend Of Zelda so no wonder this comes, if not naturally to me, then at least habitually....